February 20, 2017

Vacation reading.

We returned from our vacation to Barbados late last night, and have spent the day unpacking, doing laundry, and getting settled back into our regular routine. Tomorrow: back to work.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the best articles I read while on the beach on vacation:

The Heroism of Incremental Care

We have a certain heroic expectation of how medicine works. Following the Second World War, penicillin and then a raft of other antibiotics cured the scourge of bacterial diseases that it had been thought only God could touch. New vaccines routed polio, diphtheria, rubella, and measles. Surgeons opened the heart, transplanted organs, and removed once inoperable tumors. Heart attacks could be stopped; cancers could be cured. A single generation experienced a transformation in the treatment of human illness as no generation had before. It was like discovering that water could put out fire. We built our health-care system, accordingly, to deploy firefighters. Doctors became saviors.

But the model wasn’t quite right. If an illness is a fire, many of them require months or years to extinguish, or can be reduced only to a low-level smolder. The treatments may have side effects and complications that require yet more attention. Chronic illness has become commonplace, and we have been poorly prepared to deal with it. Much of what ails us requires a more patient kind of skill. […]

Instead of once-a-year checkups, in which people are like bridges undergoing annual inspection, we will increasingly be able to use smartphones and wearables to continuously monitor our heart rhythm, breathing, sleep, and activity, registering signs of illness as well as the effectiveness and the side effects of treatments.

Our health-care system is not designed for this future—or, indeed, for this present. We built it at a time when such capabilities were virtually nonexistent. When illness was experienced as a random catastrophe, and medical discoveries focussed on rescue, insurance for unanticipated, episodic needs was what we needed. Hospitals and heroic interventions got the large investments; incrementalists were scanted. After all, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, they had little to offer that made a major difference in people’s lives. But the more capacity we develop to monitor the body and the brain for signs of future breakdown and to correct course along the way—to deliver precision medicine,” as the lingo goes—the greater the difference health care can make in people’s lives, as well as in reducing future costs.

The Meaning of Allahu Akbar

Takbir is introduced to us before we can even attach meaning to spoken word. When we are born, the azaan—call to prayer—is performed to us at a pitch softer than cotton. The day I was born, I had already been introduced to this expression that would later on become my refuge in times of despair, my cry in times of joy and yes, my roar in moments of indignation. My father softly recited Allahu Akbar” in my ear when I came into this world.

Born after eight miscarriages, I was my parents’ miracle. […]

Takbir can be used to express awe at something of such magnitude that it shakes the core of your being. I know so many friends who softly cry Allahu Akbar” into the warmth of their palms when life becomes unbearable and loneliness, unending.

The meaning of takbir expands itself to a dizzying number of sights, sounds, tastes and sensations. Two Arabic words encompassing a spectrum of emotions in one simple sentence.

The Power of the Aphorism

The technical definition of an aphorism is a pithy observation that contains a general truth,” and it is the pith that gets us more than the truth; it is the tone that seals the writer to the words. The voices of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker and Benjamin Franklin still feel electrically alive to us because they managed to bake their personas into their brief observations. 

The Burden of Fear

My mother is light skinned and doesn’t wear any obvious Islamic identifiers, but I’m terrified. I’m worried about Josh and Rutchit, Catholic Goan and Hindu Punjabi friends, for what they might get mistaken as. I’m worried for the Black Muslim girl on the subway with headphones in, for the South Asian Muslim man with bags of groceries by his feet. I’m worried for my headstrong father, who might not know when to back down, for a queer Muslim friend who is an Afghan refugee, for all my friends who have to stay strong in the face of this and might not know how to ask for help. I’m worried for writers who are tweeting endlessly and providing information, hope, resources, and community. My fear is large and overwhelming—I’m afraid for the lives of others around me—and it is small and petty; I was really looking forward to finally listening to Jeffrey, Young Thug’s latest album, but I am too scared to put on my headphones on the subway for fear of those around me. I am tense on the ride east, my eyes searching the car for anyone who looks like they might pop off with a racial slur, or take a swing at someone. I know that, after these kinds of shootings, those with these desires become emboldened and feel like they have been given permission to let loose these destructive desires.

Strength in the face of this kind of relentless fear is its own terror. It’s hard to be vulnerable when you are a target; it is hard to show weakness when it is consistently being exploited. This means it’s impossible to be human. The day-to-day fear that has existed for Muslim immigrants since 9/11 has operated like waves against the shore, eroding our sense of self, stripping us of our possibilities and crippling our engagement with the world. I feel like I always have to be strong to repay the sacrifice my mother and father made by coming here, especially against the demonizing rhetoric sprouting from our political leaders. I don’t want my parents to feel like it was a waste, or that they made the wrong decision. I want to pretend to feel safe, even if that means disregarding a type of softness that allows for humanity.

Against Recommendation

There is, on the face of it, only one option, and it flies in the face of the contemporary moment. Just stop. Stop sharing. Stop recommending. Put the entire machinery of social media to bed and visit a website or pick up a paper and read the news. There is only one recommendation, and it is to be against recommendation. Delete the app. Forget they exist. For pity’s sake, please—just give us a minute’s peace.

The Meme Hustler

When language becomes undifferentiated, human situations disintegrate: Science becomes indistinguishable from religion, which becomes indistinguishable from commerce, which becomes indistinguishable from law, and so on. If each of them serves the same function, then none of them serves any function.

Government by White Nationalism Is Upon Us

Racist ideology ebbs and flows through our history, changing with the shape of American society and the contours of American life. When the South was a vast archipelago of human bondage and labor camps, racist ideology took the form of a widespread belief in black inferiority and underlay the forceful defenses of slavery. When segregation was law and legislators defended lynching on the Senate floor—even though anti-racism had claimed a small foothold in the national consciousness—racist ideology was a virulent and violent white supremacy.” America still has white supremacists, and they still terrorize nonwhites with harassment and violence. But now that most Americans share a nominal commitment to racial equality—such that the country celebrated at the election of its first black president, more than eight years ago—explicitly racist ideology has cloaked itself in a kind of nationalism,” outside the mainstream, but not far from its borders.

An Apology to Muslims for President Trump

The real chasm is not between Muslims and others, but between the moderates and the extremists of whatever religion.

A Reuters poll found that many Americans approve of Trump’s travel ban, but that’s not surprising. The same was true of barring Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and of interning Japanese-Americans in 1942. When we’re fearful, we’re vulnerable to politicians who play on our fears and scapegoat immigrants; in the fullness of time, we come to regret our xenophobic behavior and to appreciate the immigrants.

So I apologize to Muslims. I have seen the worst of Islam, but also the best.

The Key to Good Luck Is an Open Mind

The more observant you are of your surroundings, the more likely you are to capture a valuable resource or avoid tragedy. Lucky people don’t magically attract new opportunities and good fortune. They stroll along with their eyes wide open, fully present in the moment.

In Praise of Stupid Song Lyrics

Whereas truly great lyrics are a perfectly plated salad, stupid lyrics are a five-dollar burger leaking grease. Stupid lyrics spill their drink on you. No great lyric has the immediacy of EMAs Fuck California / You made me boring / I bled all my blood out / But these red pants / They don’t show that.” Similarly stupid is this Stevie Wonder line from Isn’t She Lovely_”_: I never thought through love we’d be / Making one as lovely as she.” Stevie loves that love made more love. It’s not exactly Yeats. But in some ways, it’s kind of better.

Don’t get me wrong. We need great lyrics. (We do not need bad lyrics—bad lyrics can drown in banana medicine.) Great lyrics are for weddings and epigraphs. I’ll always recall David Berman’s sparkling one-liners, such as the alleys are the footnotes of the avenues.” That’s as pretty as anything.

But I’m not as pretty as anything. Neither are most things I’ll ever do. Many of my conversations will contain stammering and casual lies made out of laziness. Much of the food I cook will be clammy or overdone. I absolutely will pick at my zits until they resemble military mishaps.

Real Romantic

If you like me, why bring flowers? Dead plants you can’t eat or dry into tea. Bring me totes of salmon so fresh their blood smells like the sea, brined seal, shucked cockles, moose roasts. My loving gestures include gifts of wool work socks and value packs of cotton underwear. Also, jam.

Why America’s Airports Suck

America’‘s airports feel like bus stations because, broadly speaking, they are funded like bus stations. They don’’t rely on taxpayer money, nor are they allowed to turn profits. Anything they earn must be reinvested into the facilities. The trouble for U.S. airports is that what they earn —— through pennies on pretzels, rent from airlines, and a $4.50-per-ticket charge —— isn’’t nearly enough to keep pre-9/11 facilities safe, functioning, and ready for the 21st century. Overseas and in Canada airports have solved this problem by bringing in private investors, selling off operator rights, and taking control of, and often raising, the user fee. Those tactics either aren’’t allowed in the U.S. or they haven’t been exercised. The result: places like LaGuardia. All day every day, thousands of people file onto airplanes headed to the U.S. guaranteed of one thing: Wherever they’’re leaving is better than what lies ahead.

The Alabamafication of America

Religion is an important tenet of traditionalism. For Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, Alabama’s traditionalistic culture is best illustrated by the popular relationship between its citizens and Christianity. Flynt explained to the HPR, Religion is a stool with four legs: one is theology, one is social ethics, one is personal ethics, and one is ritual and practice.” In his view, Southern Protestantism makes ritual irrelevant, as the closer religion is to everyday practice, the more [Alabamians] like it.” Strong cultural ideologies undermine social and personal ethics, as dealing with poor immigrants is off the table” to many traditionalists. As a result, Flynt finds that the Evangelical church is not concerned with social justice.” Personal ethics are also not important—“Southern Baptists have one of the highest divorce rates in the U.S. When it comes to premarital sex and children out of wedlock, Alabama doesn’t do well.” This leaves only theology, which Flynt sees as strict adherence to the text of the Bible.

Despite his public failures in social and personal ethics, Trump, like Moore, gives off strong traditionalist airs. He may not know the books of the bible, but his strong stance against Islam is a classic evangelical stance—traditionalist Christians stand up to those that do not accept the text of the bible, a pillar of traditionalist Christianity. This antagonistic thinking is advanced by men like Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, who claims that fear of Muslims is rational. Steve Bannon, another Trump adviser, has repeatedly talked of the civilizational struggle between Islam and Christianity.

Decline in global oceanic oxygen content during the past five decades

Ocean models predict a decline in the dissolved oxygen inventory of the global ocean of one to seven per cent by the year 2100, caused by a combination of a warming-induced decline in oxygen solubility and reduced ventilation of the deep ocean. It is thought that such a decline in the oceanic oxygen content could affect ocean nutrient cycles and the marine habitat, with potentially detrimental consequences for fisheries and coastal economies.

Gregg Popovich has found the opponent of his life: President Trump

Popovich is famously private, conversational evasion another favorite pastime, and nothing ends conversations or interviews faster than a pivot toward his personal life. The Spurs declined an interview request for this story, and following a news conference before a game in Philadelphia this month, Popovich abruptly ended an interview with The Washington Post after learning that the intended article’s subject was Popovich himself.

But the truth is, even some of his close friends know only superficial details about him. He prefers cooking shows to ESPN, and he treats the release of the NBA schedule like a holiday because he can comb Zagat for new restaurants to try. Popovich likes avant-garde movies and presidential biographies, and though he earns $11 million per year to coach basketball, he wishes his life were as cool as Anthony Bourdain’s.

Ronald Reagan stuck it to millennials: A college debt history lesson no one tells

Had anyone at my reunion complained about the complacency of today’s students or bragged about how they got through school without taking on staggering debt, I could have reminded them that the class of 84 was the last to have a higher percentage of grants than loans. Today’s imbalance leads too many students to buy the lie that the humanities are exclusively for rich kids. They worry that those in the 99 percent studying Aristotle or Virginia Woolf are destined for permanent residency in their parents’ basements and, if they are lucky, positions as baristas.

These same students are pressured to major in practical” subjects like business or the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), even though this year, more than 80 percent of all students, regardless of major, didn’t have a job lined up a month before graduation. Worst of all, these students’ sense of the future is constrained by planning for and then paying down their student loans, often for decades. Economists are waking up to the fact that when young Americans enter the workforce burdened with over a trillion dollars in cumulative debt, they become risk averse, unwilling to move, less able to make major purchases, and slower to become homeowners. Not coincidentally, they don’t feel safe enough to register any major protests against the society that’s done this to them.

The Good Wife

Education was my only refuge from my dark thoughts. I focused all my energy on school. In my fourth year, I was promoted to head TA. I worked as a senior mentor for the school’s first-year transition program. I carried an eight-course load and earned a 3.99 GPA. One day, I got an email from my department advisor. In it was a description of the university’s highest honour, the John H. Moss Scholarship, a $16,000 award that’s given to an outstanding student who intends to pursue graduate work—the Rhodes scholarship of U of T. My advisor encouraged me to apply. No one from U of T Mississauga campus had ever won it, she said. The deadline was only a few days away, but she convinced me to hustle up the paperwork.

A few weeks later, I got an email saying that I was one of five finalists. I arrived for my interview on February 6, 2013. The committee ran through questions about my academic record and leadership experience. I’d written about my abusive marriage in my application, too, and at the end of the interview, the panel asked me how I go on after everything I’ve been through. My polish wore off in that moment. Every day I feel like giving up,” I told them. But I don’t want my daughters to grow up thinking that being abused is normal.”

Calm in the storm: The rise and rise of Ahmed Hussen

It’s virtually impossible to imagine a way in which the 40-year-old could be better suited to the cabinet job he now holds. He came to Canada fleeing the Somali civil war, and subsequently lived in Regent Park, a once-troubled and isolated downtown Toronto public housing project he would help rejuvenate and repatriate to the residents when redevelopment came calling. Later, he opened a law practice focusing on immigration law and criminal cases, particularly for young offenders.

I also re-read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ My President Was Black for the fourth time because it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing in years. You really should read it if you haven’t done that yet.

If you’re looking to read a collection of anecdotes and thoughts from my most recent vacation (and see some photos too), you can find them here:

→ Weekend Reading